At age 30, Alan Duarte, a Carioca (as those from Rio de Janeiro are known), already had ten relatives killed by firearms. No man in his family had died from a different cause. The macabre accounting extends beyond his family: 100 friends killed the same way, 17 who survived gunshots, and seven other family and friends incarcerated.
As a result of poverty, drug trafficking, stray bullets and robberies, 70% of the Brazilians murdered in the country are black men — and between 2006 and 2016 the number increased by 23%.
Alan lives in Morro do Adeus, part of the Complexo do Alemão, a set of favelas, or slums (locals prefer the word “communities”) in the north side of Rio where about 70,000 people live. To avoid becoming yet another statistic, he focused on boxing and has inspired more than 250 young people to do the same with “Abraço Campeão” (I Embrace Champions), a non-profit organization that provides boxing training for boys and girls from seven to 29 years old and also requires them to attend personal development classes.
In its four years of existence, Abraço Campeão has received support via the well-respected Brazil Foundation‘s grant-making process, in addition to having its story told by the film “The Good Fight”. The film has been shown at festivals all over the world, and won ‘best documentary short’ at the TriBeCa Film Festival in New York.
To create Abraço Campeão, Alan replicated the model of another NGO, “Luta Pela Paz” (Fight for Peace), which he has been a part of since he was a teen. (Fight for Peace was founded in the Complexo da Maré, another community in Rio.)
The youngest of three brothers, Alan was the only one who attended school. During the holidays, he visited his grandmother at the Complexo da Maré and at age 17 – a critical age – trained for boxing three times a week, in addition to attending personal development classes.
“I remember opening the closet and just seeing my gym shirt and shorts: I dressed, and I was proud because I was recognized when I walked through the community. I remember how good those Nike outfits and those Adidas shoes made me feel. If it had not been that way, maybe I’d have looked for other ways to get recognition,” he recalls.
“By setting up a ring in the middle of the community and having a boy introduce himself and fight, we offer him the same things that the drug traffickers offer, only in a legal way: status, recognition, an identity, and even respect.”
Before boxing, Alan came in and out of Complex da Maré in total anonymity. But the day he stepped into a ring, all of a sudden, his life changed. He made new friends and, as he walked the alleys, he heard things like “Check out the fighter!”, or “I saw you! You got that guy, very cool!”
Alan stepped out of invisibility and gained an identity.
“Without that feeling, a young man ends up being ‘a nobody’. It is so important to have a way to fill this gap with a sport,” Alan says.
He knows what he is talking about: he began competing in boxing for Rio de Janeiro, for Brazil and went on to fight in South Africa and England. Abroad, he saw that there are different ways of doing and thinking.
“Boxing is not a violent sport. People are much more aggressive in everyday life than in fighting. All the punches I’ve ever had in the ring and in training are nothing compared to what I’ve heard in my lifetime,” he says.
“I always tell kids that boxing is like playing ball: will you fail to score just because your opponent is your friend? In boxing it is the same thing. Everyone can still be friends,” he says. “The magic of boxing and martial arts is this: to prepare children for daily battles where there are no rules.”
His brother Jackson’s death was the most difficult. Eight years older than Alan, Jackson was 33 and a father of two children. Although he could not read or write, Jackson was a safe haven for Alan. He was also a father figure: Alan had not been raised by his father (who separated from Alan’s mom when he was very young) and saw little of his mother, who worked as a hospital cleaner for much of the day and night. (Alan worked as a motorcycle taxi all night and then ended his day at five in the morning, but would wait until 6 a.m. to meet Jackson, who would pass by Alan on the corner on his way to work.)
In fact, Jackson was serving a work-release prison term, working as a security guard during the day and sleeping in the prison at night. Every day at six in the morning he would meet Alan and his mother. One day, shortly after they said goodbye, Alan drove off on his motorcycle, turned the corner, and a hundred yards later he heard a gunshot. As he looked back, he saw the black car from which the shot came. It hit his brother’s head. Ten days later, Alan and his mother received the government document that would have released Jackson from his prison term: the date was set for the day of his death.
This loss was the most painful yet and spurred Alan into action. “I took three old fighting gloves that would have gone to the trash and a punching bag borrowed from a friend, put them on a soccer field in the Complexo do Alemão and gathered the children that were there every day so we could train; rain, shine or shooting.”
Despite the project’s success of the children’s commitment, Alan continues to work as a teacher at Luta Pela Paz to earn a salary because Abraço Campeão still does not have enough funding to be self-sufficient.
$12,000 reais a month (approx. $3,000 US dollars) is what it takes to maintain the project. With this amount, Alan intends to start paying wages to three coaches – one for boxing, one for wrestling and one for karate (the karate teacher recently left because he was able to get a stable salary elsewhere, but the students are waiting for a new hire). In addition, there is a receptionist, a cleaning lady, an administrative assistant and an operational assistant.
Today’s resources are limited to $62,000 reais (approx. $15,800 US dollars) raised last year by Abrace Brasil, a charitable campaign promoted by the Brazil Foundation, half of which came from a single donor: Pierre Lacaze, a French businessman who started the organization “Vivo à Beira” (I Live on the Edge). Alan’s project also received $7,500 US dollars from Empower, a New York foundation that helps young people at risk.
Alan’s son, Jackson, is six years old. Alan confesses to being a tough-love father: according to him, growing up in a community makes people harder.
But he still cries several nights a week, awake on a mattress on the floor. (He doesn’t have the money for a bed.) He thinks of the students: no clean clothes, beds, food, no one to say, “You look good,” or “Congratulations on your good grade.” For Alan, making these children feel human is a basic need.
“The atrocities in the communities, in the favelas, in our city and in our country end up hurting the children first.” Still, little Jackson, seeing his father come home and weak with fatigue, always hugs him tightly and says, “I love you.”
To see the trailer for The Good Fight, click here.
If you wish to donate, click here and specify that your donation should go to support Abraço Campeão.